States Seek to Protect Election Workers Amid Growing Threats (Dreamstime)
LISA RATHKE and CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY Thursday, 03 February 2022 03:43 PM
Lawmakers in a handful of states are seeking greater protections for election officials amid growing concerns for their safety after they were targeted by threats of violence following the 2020 presidential election.
Widespread threats against those who oversee elections, from secretaries of state to county clerks and even poll workers, soared after former President Donald Trump and his allies alleged fraud in the outcome of the presidential election. “Corrupt secretaries will all hang when the stolen election is revealed” is just one example of the vitriol that has come from social media, emails and phone messages.
Even in Vermont, where the outcome wasn't disputed, election workers have faced threats. A caller to the secretary of state's office said in 2020 that a firing squad would target “all you cheating (vulgarity),” and “a lot of people are going to get executed.”
To counter the threats, lawmakers have introduced bills so far in Vermont and several other states, including Illinois, Maine, New Mexico and Washington, all of which have legislatures controlled by Democrats. Much of the legislation would create or boost criminal liability for threats and, in Illinois, for assaults against election workers.
More legislation is possible, as election officials warn that the ongoing attacks endanger democracy and that many election workers have quit or are considering doing so because of the abuse they have faced since the 2020 election.
“Nationally, we are seeing longtime experienced election leaders and their staffs leaving their positions for other work because they’ve had it — this is it, this has crossed the line,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat.
A survey of local election officials commissioned by the Brennan Center last April found one in three felt unsafe because of their job and one in six said they had been threatened. Trump has continued to insist that the election was stolen from him.
One bill under consideration in Vermont would expand the definition of criminal threatening to make it easier to prosecute those acts. Another would heighten the penalty for the criminal threatening of election officials, public employees and public servants.
During a recent legislative committee hearing, Condos described how the threatening calls had scared one staffer to the point that he was afraid to leave work and walk to his vehicle. He eventually took time off and sought counseling for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.
“No election official should ever need to fear for their life for their role in serving our country’s democracy in this or any election,” Condos said.
A bill in Maine would make threats against election officials a class C felony, after threats to two local clerks in 2021.
“The message has to be loud and clear that this is a threat to our democracy,” said Democratic Rep. Bruce White, the sponsor. “Threatening people who work our elections is entirely unacceptable.”
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, left her home for weeks as a safety precaution in response to security concerns. A Democrat-sponsored bill introduced last month expands the felony crime of intimidation to include acts against employees and agents of the secretary of state, county clerks and municipal clerks.